Steelers Report Card for Loss to the Browns, Who got the F’s?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has just seen his classroom endure a traumatic incident here is the Steelers Report Card for the Body Bag Game” against the Browns.

Mason Rudolph, Larry Ogunjobi, Steelers Browns 2019 Body Bag Game

Larry Ogunjobi closes in on Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
The short week figured to test Mason Rudolph. Many are writing off Rudolph’s entire future based on one bad night which is foolish. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, Mason Rudolph did some nice things, particularly early in the game. But his interceptions were costly, and grew uglier as the night progressed. One plus, Mason Rudolph displayed excellent tackling technique. The Steelers had a shot to win despite giving up 14 quick points, but Rudolph’s picks killed those chances. Grade: F Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Sometimes the eye can see what it wants to, because memory has James Conner playing very well before he got hurt. However, the stat sheet of 10 yards on 5 carries and 1 catch for 7 yards tells a very different tale. Jaylen Samuels had a decent night running and catching, but his opportunities were limited. Trey Edmunds continues to show he has some serviceable skills as a reserve running back, but blocking is not one of those. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 of 7 passes targeted to him, but with wide receivers dropping like flies he really didn’t appear to be a factor in the passing game. Moreover, on at least one pass early in the first half, McDonald appeared to mail it in terms of blocking. Nick Vannett caught 1 pass on one target. The tight ends have a chance to boost this offense, but do not appear to be taking advantage. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Wow. Where’s Cobi Hamilton when you need him? JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson were having decent games before blatant head shots took them both out. James Washington did well. As for Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton? Well, Holton caught his first pass, but missed on a deep one he should have had. Tevin Jones had a hand on a catchable pass that got intercepted. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
4-7-11. Those were Cleveland’s numbers for sacks, tackles for losses and quarterback hits. A quality line can’t make miracles, but can certainly provide an offense the foundation it needs to overcome deficiencies at the skill positions. On paper, and certainly when measured in terms of salary cap investment, the Steelers should be fielding an offensive line that does just that. But that wasn’t apparent against the Browns, and hasn’t been apparent for much of the season. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Browns actually sniffed 100 yards in total rushing, but the Steelers made them work for it with the defensive line accounting for 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward led the team in tackles which is impressive. Grade: B

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Nick Chubb, Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Browns

Cam Heyward tackles Nick Chubb. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had the team’s lone sack, hit the QB 2 other times and helped drop at least three Browns for losses. Vince Williams and Devin Bush clocked in at 3rd and 4th on tackles while Bud Dupree had 2.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The Steelers defense pressured Baker Mayfield, but Mayfield eluded the rush and, at least early in the game made the Steelers pay. That’s not all on the linebackers, but some of it is. Grade: C+

Secondary
Cleveland’s first touchdown looked alarmingly easy. The Steelers defense was in complete disarray on the Browns second touchdown and the play that preceded it. After that the Steelers secondary settled down, and helped limit the Browns to go 6-16 on third down conversions. Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton led the unit in tackles and passes defensed. Grade: C

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns 2019

Jarvis Landry scores with nary a Steeler nearby. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Cleveland.com

Special Teams
Diontate Johnson and Cam Sutton returned two punt for an average of 9 yards, which is slightly above the league mean, just as was the Browns kickoff return average. Steeler punt coverage held the Browns below the league average, where as Tony Brooks-James two kick retruns average 16 yards which could be the reason why he’s looking for a job today.

Chris Boswell missed on one field goal, but that came off of a bad snap/bad hold. Boswell made his other attempt and his lone extra point attempt. Grade: C-

Coaching
Keith Butler’s defense has been the strength of the team and the unit was clearly stumbling to find its footing during the first 20 minutes of the game. Following that, however, the Cleveland Browns were scoreless until a Mason Rudolph interception at the 9 yard line with 6:32 remaining essentially gifted them another score.

  • Randy Ficthner’s predictable offense is taking a lot of heat from commentators for whom the Report Card has a lot of respect.

And those commentaries have a lot of merit. Still, Randy Ficthner is charged guiding a backup quarterback through an offense designed for a franchise quarterback with backup and now scout team players thrust into starting roles at the skill positions.

  • Anyone really think that adding a few more layers of complexity is wise?

While preparing such a young team on a short week while on the road might not be “fair,” the results indicate that the Steelers was defense up to the challenge while the offense wasn’t. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when the Steelers offense was struggling to gain any semblance of traction, he kept the Browns offense from gaining any sort of field position advantage by booming off 6 punts that averaged 49.6 yards. This is helped keep the Steelers in the game until it tun overs took their toll in the 4th quarter, and for that Jordan Berry wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Body Bag Game.

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NFL Places Anthony Chickillo on Commissioners List. Steelers Resign Jayrone Elliott

Anthony Chickillo is already feeling some of the consequences resulting from his alleged involvement in a domestic dispute with his girlfriend last weekend at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. As seems to becoming standard operating procedure in the NFL, Roger Goodell has placed Anthony Chickillo on the Commissioner’s exempt list.

While on this list, Anthony Chickillo will continue to receive his salary, but can neither play nor attend games, although he can be at team headquarters for injury therapy or non-football related activities.

Ola Adeniyi is also an available backup behind starters T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.

Interestingly enough, the New York Giants waived Steelers preseason stand out Tuzar Skipper. Tuzar Skipper had made the Steelers final 53 man roster, but the Steelers waived him prior to the loss to the Patriots to make room for Johnny Holton.

Pittsburgh had hoped to bring him back on to the practice squad, but the Giants claimed him off of waivers. Clearly the Steelers see something more in Elliot, but they could still add Skipper to the practice squad.

Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Anthony Chickillo in happier times, who found himself on the NFL’s Commissioner’s list. Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via PennLive.com

Steelers Exit Bye Week, Return to Health

Mason Rudolph has cleared the concussion protocol and will start for the Steelers this Monday against Miami. Steven Nelson, Roosevelt Nix, Vance McDonald and James Washington have returned to practice and are expected to play.

While the Steelers offense could certainly use a shot in the arm from Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. acquitted himself well in relief of James Conner in the win at Los Angeles. If Joe Haden cannot start, Artie Burns could get the nod to start his second straight game in over a year, although Cam Sutton would be a candidate as well based on his performance against the Chargers.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Chargers – Not Quite Straight A’s, but Close

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is crossing his fingers n hopes that his student can sustain the momentum they’re taking into spring break, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Chargers.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Quarterback
The first rule for a backup quarterback is to avoid mistakes that cost his team the game. Devlin Hodges did that in going 15 for 20 for one touchdown. His interception was costly, but fortunately not a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner continues to excel. Although his rushing average might not impress, he ran well and was even more effective catching the ball. Benny Snell saw his first extended action, and put together an tremendous night with 75 yards on 17 carries. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett caught both passes thrown to them for five yards on their only targets. But the tight ends real contribution came in run blocking, where they really made a difference. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet, quiet night for the Steelers wide outs as Diontae Johnson led the team with 2 catches for 14 yards. Donte Moncrief was next with one catch for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had one catch for 7 yards. Johnny Holton had one target and failed to come back to the ball allowing for an easy interception. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that defines Steelers football. The quarterback wasn’t sacked nor was he even hit based on ESPN’s statistics. But more importantly, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to, and the offensive line opened holes for both running backs. Grade: A

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

Defensive Line
In a night when the defense dominated at levels not seen in years, the defensive line features a sparse stat sheet. But don’t be fooled. As Jim Wexell pointed out, Stephon Tuitt’s vicious hit of Philip Rivers knocked the quarterback off track for the entire first half. Tyson Alualu tipped a ball that turn into an interception, and Cam Heyward on Javon Hargrave helped stone the Chargers running backs. Grade: A

Linebackers
Anyone still want to second guess that Devin Bush trade? In only his sixth game as a pro, Devin Bush scored the first defensive touchdown of the year and set up the Steelers second score with his second interception in as many weeks. Oh, and he also led in tackles. T.J. Watt had a half sack, batted down a ball, and harassed Philip Rivers all night. Anthony Chickillo returned notching a half sack, and Vince Williams helped keep the Chargers rushers in check. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick batted away a pass and was second in tackles, followed by Terrell Edmunds. Mike Hilton had his hands on a the penultimate pass of the night. The real star of the show was Cam Sutton, who batted away 3 passes and came down with the game sealing interception. Grade: A

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Special Teams
The Steelers kick coverage continues to be an issue, but Ryan Switzer had a respectable return. Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. The real stars of the show were Cam Sutton Jordan Berry and Johnny Holton. Cam Sutton made a head-over-heels onsides kick recovery while Berry and Holton who teamed to pin the Chargers down at their one with less than one minute to play.

These players were exactly what the Steelers needed. Grade: A

Coaching
The deck seemed to be stacked against the Steelers. They were playing on the West Coast. Not only was their starting quarterback injured, but so where his two offensive counterparts from the 2017 NFL Draft. The Steelers were also down one starting inside linebacker and a cornerback who has quietly authored a dominating season.

  • Yet, Mike Tomlin got his team to tune out the noise and the Steelers turned out their best performance of the season.

On offense, Randy Fichtner adhered to the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid, and in doing so he set his rookie, 4th string quarterback up to win his first start. Whether it was by design or necessity Shaun Sarrett finally got the offensive line run blocking going.

On defense, Keith Butler continued to do what he has quietly done for the past several games: Deploy a defense that is playing dominant football.

  • Sure, as injuries mounted in the second half things got closer than one would like to see. But the Steelers defense closed the deal, all you can ask.

One quibble against the coaches is the intercepted deep pass. The Chargers were on the ropes before that, and that play got them back into it. Ultimately, that will be a footnote on this season’s history, but it does nudge the grade down. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
He arrived in Pittsburgh as both a second choice and a surprise, but made a respectable debut. Then, in his second season he began to struggle when he should have soared. Things went downhill from there, as he lost his starting job to a player who, a year later, is out of football. Then he found himself on the bench altogether.

He saw his first action in months against the Chargers. He could have been picked on and exploited as an easy target. Yet, his name was not often heard and he was by no means the weak link in a very strong Steelers defense, and for that Artie Burns wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Chargers.

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Steelers 24-17 Win over Chargers Yields Building Blocks to Take into Bye Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled in 2019. Injuries have struck key players. Players have turned over the ball at inopportune moments. Several Steelers have stepped up to make spectacular individual plays, but something has always conspired to keep Pittsburgh from bring it altogether.

  • In the Steelers 24-17 win over the Chargers, Pittsburgh finally brought it together.

Not only did the Steelers bring it together, but they added key elements to their game which had been missing and those ended up being the difference makers.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Defense Dominates Early and Often

Perhaps critics can be forgiven for failing to see it amidst the wreckage of a 1-4 start, but the Steelers defense has been getting better. This isn’t about simply avoiding the sieve-like quality that has too often bedeviled them since injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier derailed a promising rise in mid-2017.

  • No, the Steelers defense has been signaling that it can go beyond that, that it can dominate.

And against the Chargers, Keith Butler’s boys dominated. Devin Bush led the charge early on when the rookie made yet another heads up play, by scooping up a failed lateral to put the Steelers ahead 7 to nothing.

  • On the very next series, Tyson Alualu tipped a pass, and again Devin Bush delivered with an interception.

That set up the Steelers 2nd score, which made the game 14-0, with 4 minutes left to play in the 1st quarter. The Steelers defense kept the pedal to the metal through the rest of the first half. The stat sheet says that Anthony Chickillo and T.J. Watt shared the lone sack of Philip Rivers. But what the stat sheet fails to show is that the Steelers defense harassed him through the first half.

More would be required of them later on, but Steelers defense played its best half of football since October 2017, when it completely shut down the then-NFL leading Kansas City Chiefs offense.

Road Grading Returns to Pittsburgh’s Offense

The Steelers offensive line has been saddled with a glass half-full, half-empty syndrome in 2019. On the one hand, the offensive line has done a masterful job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges clean.

Forced to find a spark, Randy Fichtner had to turn to the Wildcat to get the offense moving. An innovative move to be sure, but one that worked against the Bengals and failed miserably vs the Ravens. Whispers began:

  • Was the offensive line missing Mike Munchak?
  • Was the unit’s collective age creeping up on it?

Against the Chargers, the Steelers defense silenced those whispers with authority and decisiveness. It is one thing run against NFL defenses trying to protect against the pass. It is another thing to establish the run when the opposing team knows you’re going to run the ball.

  • The Chargers knew the Steelers were going to run the ball.
  • The Steeler ran it and dared Los Angeles to stop them.

Los Angeles tried, and failed. James Conner’s first touchdown run required some hustle on the part of the running back, but it was made possible by road-grading quality blocking by Vance McDonald and Alejandro Villanueva.

The Steelers offense authored two drives, one in the 2nd quarter and the other to begin the 3rd quarter, which burned 9:09 and 6:48 off the clock and added 10 points to the score board. With 19 minutes remaining to play, Steelers had effectively imposed their will on the Chargers.

Sutton, Special Teams Stamp Out Chargers New Signs of Life

Credit the Steelers coaches for many things going into this game, but the Devlin Hodges attempt to hook up keep with Johnny Holton is not one of those. The Chargers weren’t fooled, and the interception injected new life into a team that looked like it was really ready for the showers.

  • Instead, Philip Rivers did what Hall of Fame quarterbacks do when you give them a 2nd chance, he rallied his team to two touchdowns.

And Philip Rivers might have succeeded in rallying for a third, had it not been for one 3rd round pick and an Aussie punter. Cam Sutton has tantalized Steelers Nation since Pittsburgh drafted him in 2017. He got activated off of injured reserve and immediately pressed Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh for playing time late in his rookie year.

However, Cam Sutton disappeared shortly thereafter, but began flashing again during preseason, and asserted himself at points during the 2019 campaign. But Cam Sutton asserted himself to close out the Chargers game in stunning fashion, defending multiple passes and making a spectacular head over heels on-sides kick recovery.

Cam Sutton recovers an on sides kick in the Steelers 24-17 win over Chargers. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today via The Athletic

The Chargers had all three of their time outs after the on-sides kick, and the Steelers offense couldn’t make a first down, forcing a punt. Jordan Berry boomed off a punt which pinned the Chargers down at their one.

Throwing from his own end zone, Philip Rivers first pass bounced off of Mike Hilton’s hands. Cam Sutton grabbed his second one, which sealed victory for the Steelers.

Steelers Take 2-4, Building Blocks into Bye Week

A 2-4 record is nothing to be of proud of, but it sure beats 1-5. But beyond doubling their total in the win column, the victory over the Chargers gives the Steelers something they can build on heading into the bye week.

  • The Steelers first win over the Bengals, however satisfying, was gimmicky

In contrast, the Steelers defeated the Chargers by out executing San Diego, er um, Los Angeles, the fundamentals. And that gives Pittsburgh a sustainable strategy the can follow over the next ten games to come.

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Did Pittsburgh Find its Poise in the Steelers 27-3 MNF Win over the Bengals?

The Steelers 27-3 win over the Bengals on Monday Night Football delivered Pittsburgh a much needed win. But days later debate continues over just what the win actually means.

  • Has a defense loaded with premium draft and free agent capital finally found itself?
  • Will the Wildcat, which worked so well against the Bengals, fly against varsity NFL completion?
  • Must Steelers Nation temper reactions with, “Its only Cincinnati?”

The answers to the questions are, Maybe, No, and Yes.

But none of those answers provide the key take away from the Steelers first win of the 2019 season. The key take away is that Pittsburgh, perhaps, has found its poise.

Javon Hargrave, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals, Javon Hargrave sacks Andy Dalton

Javon Hargrave sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Barron Helps Right and Unsteady Steelers Start

The Steelers season opening loss against the New England Patriots was disturbing on so many levels. The most disturbing facet of the loss wasn’t captured on the stat sheet. Pittsburgh’s latest loss in New England was so unsettling because the Steelers didn’t look like they belonged on the same field as the defending Super Bowl Champions.

Pittsburgh’s performance picked up in losses to Seattle and San Francisco, but the offense remained out of synch and the defense surrendered 2nd half leads twice.

  • Things started off similarly against Cincinnati.

After the Steelers defense forced a punt, Diontae Johnson fumbled the ball away at the 15 yard line two plays into the first drive of the night.

  • The Bengals had the ball at the Red Zone and were poised to strike.

The Steelers defense refused to flinch. Andy Dalton threw two incomplete passes while Mark Barron batted away the third. Mark Barron had been a disappointment thus far. He stepped up. He was the first of many to do so.

Steelers Step Up

Although it forced Cincinnati to settle for three points, the game didn’t turn on Mark Barron’s third down play. It did however, set the tone for the night.

While the Steelers didn’t pull away until the 2nd half, it was clear even in the 1th quarter that players were stepping up. Both Cam Heyward and James Conner went to the sideline with injuries. Both came back to make big plays.

  • James Conner scored the Steelers first touchdown on an impressive 21 yard catch
  • Cam Heyward killed Cincinnati’s final 1st half drive with an 8 yard sack.

Those ladies and gentleman are examples of leading with your actions. Many others followed suit.

  • Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, and Joe Haden all batted away passes at critical junctures
  • Bud Dupree ended another Cincinnati Red Zone possession with his strip sack as T.J. Watt recovered
  • Devin Bush recorded his first sack and dropped 3 Cincinnati runners for losses
  • Jaylen Samuels stepped into a modern day “Slash” role throwing, running and receiving
  • Mason Rudolph, on a tight leash for most of the night, flashed some play making improve ability
  • Nick Vannett, who wasn’t even a Steeler six days earlier, stepped up several times

The players were not the only ones to step up. Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for the Steelers game plan against San Francisco. Many suggested his play calling failed to account for the fact that his signal caller was Mason Rudolph and not Ben Roethlisberger.

Those critiques may be fair or they be unfair, but the fact remains that the Steelers defense secured multiple turnovers which the offense failed capitalize on.

The Steelers offense was far more prolific against the Bengals, but Tuesday morning Fichtner still found himself facing criticisms that the Wildcat and Jet screens represented “play ground football” that could never be sustained.

That is probably true. Don’t expect Baltimore to be caught flat footed by such gimmicks.Indeed, Mike Tomlin has as much conceded that the steady diet of the Wildcat won’t be sustainable for the Steelers. But that is not important.

What is important is that the Steelers offense needed a spark, and Randy Fichtner found a way to provide one.

The Road from Here Starts with Ravens

2019 is hardly the first September the Steelers have suffered through. On a number of previous occasions, the Steelers have taken advantage of early matchups against the Bengals to break out of September slumps.
IF memory serves, after one such win, the Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik once observed that if the Bengals didn’t exist, the Steelers would have to invent them.

Sometimes, as in ’93 and ’02, those early season wins over the Bengals helped spark bigger things for the Steelers. At other times, such as 2003, those sparks faded into oblivion as the calendar turned to October.

  • The Steelers entered the game against Cincinnati as a team that still looked unsure of itself. They ended as a team playing with poise and confidence.

Confidence can be contagious. Can the Steelers sustain it? The Baltimore Ravens will be the first to test their resolve.

 

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4 Challenges the Steelers Must Master this Summer at St. Vincents

Training camp has started and for the next few weeks St. Vincents, in Latrobe will occupy the center of the universe for Steelers Nation. Over the next 24 hours, we’ll be treated to images of players moving into camp, interviews with veteran stars and rookie hopefuls and a press conference from Mike Tomlin where he promises to “Build a foundation.”

A foundation is indeed necessary if the men in Black and Gold are to reverse their two year slide from AFC Championship appearance in ‘16, to one-and-done in ’17 to watching Cleveland come up “choto” to keep them out of the playoffs in ’18 (“Choto” is a bit of Argentine porteño slang, either Google it or check here and here to see choto used in a Steelers football context.)

With that in mind, here are 3 key challenges the Steelers must master during training camp and preseason.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger set their sights high. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

1. Sharpening Players While Keeping Them Fresh and Healthy

Training camp is a time where teams build cohesion. But cohesion means little if guys get hurt during the process. NFL coaches must strike a fine balance.

Ben Roethlisberger is 37 years old. He knows the playbook. He’s well versed in the nuances of running the two minute drill. Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs can use all the reps they can get, whereas Ben Roethlisberger knows how to throw a fade route.

Ben Roethlisberger’s training camp practice has reps have been limited and he’s seen precious little action in preseason for the past several summers. He’s also remained healthy and upright for the past two seasons.

  • But Roethlisberger has also been rusty at the start of the last two seasons.

He was far worse in early 2017 than in 2018, but last year it still took him several games to hit his stride. The Steelers cannot afford that, especially given the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington and Vance McDonald will have to find someway to make up for the loss of You Know Who.

This summer at St. Vincents the Steelers must position themselves to start fast and finish strong.

2. Establish a Number 2 Wide Receiver

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a legitimate number 1 wide receiver. You don’t make the catches he’s made over the last two years if you don’t have true talent. But every true number 1 needs a number 2 to take heat off of him.

Just look at how You Know Who was limited down the stretch in ’16 when the Steelers were essentially starting practice squad guys at the number 3 and 4 wide receiver slots.

If James Washington can transfer what coaches and journalists say they see on the practice fields to game situations then the Steelers will be OK. If not, then they had better hope that Donte Moncrief does indeed benefit from having Ben Roethlisberger throw to him.

Otherwise, the Steelers fall from contender status will continue this autumn.

3. Find a True Number 3 Running Back

Yep. We are beating that horse again, although the horse is very much on its legs. The combination of injures and lack of backfield depth has been a chronic weakness throughout the Mike Tomlin era. Some situations were unavoidable.

However, the Steelers have gambled with not staffing a competent number 3 running back for the past several seasons, and it has hurt them every time. Counting on James Conner to stay healthy and Jaylen Samuels to both stay healthy and build on his rookie year is too big a role of the dice.

The Steelers NEED Bennie Snell Jr., Trey Edmunds or someone else to prove they can be a legit number 3 NFL running back. Otherwise, the prospect of needing to make another December call Stevan Ridley could be come very real.

4. Sort Out Secondary Depth

Assuming good health, which is never a safe assumption in the NFL, it says here the Steelers have four competent starters to field in the secondary with Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis. Mike Hilton might not be a superstar, but he’s a 3rd corner you can win with.

  • After that, the Steelers have quantity, but no proven quality.

The Steelers need to develop that depth this summer. Morgan Burnett forced his way out of Pittsburgh after last season and most fans shrugged their shoulders. Yet, it was Burnett who knocked away Tom Brady’s final pass, and had he returned he’d have given the Steelers a strong option as a third safety.

Right now the backup safeties s are Marcus Allen and Jordan Dangerfield. Everyone seems to be down on Allen, even though his slate is blank. Maybe he can prove the doubters wrong.

Over at cornerback Cam Sutton and Brian Allen need to turn potential into production and/or Artie Burns has to salvage something of a once promising start. Otherwise, might see Justin Layne get a baptism by fire….

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Steelers Draft Justin Layne, Cornerback Michigan State with 2nd Third Round Pick in 2019 NFL Draft

Kevin Colbert swears that he never, ever drafts for need. “Ni en pedo” is what he would swear where he an Argentine porteño.

Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest 2019 draft needs were Inside Linebacker, Cornerback and Wide Receiver. Could it just be a coincidence that the Steelers first picks in the draft went Inside Linebacker, Wide Receiver and Cornerback?

  • Yeah, tell me you believe it is a coincidence and I’ll get you a REALLY good price on the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

Using their own 3rd round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to Justin Layne, cornerback from Michigan State. Justin Layne grew up in Cleveland as the son of a devoted Browns fan, but as Jim Wexell reports, he has already clarified that “Man, my dad threw away all his Browns stuff.”

Justin Layne, Steelers draft Justin Layne, Ron'Quavion Tarver

Steelers drafted Justin Layne in 3rd round of 2019 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Mike Mulholland, MLive.com

Justin Lanye’s past family ties with the Brown can and should be forgiven. After all Chuck Noll was a former Cleveland Brown player and Justin Layne is a graduate of Benedictine High in Cleveland as was Chuck Noll.

  • Like his colleague Brian Allen, Layne arrives in the NFL new to the cornerback position.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reminds us, Brian Layne actually began his career for the Michigan State Spartans playing wide receiver, not switching until midway through the 2016 season when he took an interception 43 yards for a touchdown in his first game as corner.

  • How does that cliché go, if defensive backs had hands, they’d be wide receivers?

Perhaps with experience on the other side, Justin Layne can break the mold, as he make 3 more interceptions and broke up 24 passes (while interceptions are coveted, passes defensed is often viewed as the better key performance indicator by secondary coaches.)

Justin Layne’s Highlight Tape

If some were quick to say that the Steeler reached for their first 3rd round pick, wide receiver Diontae Johnson, people just as quickly asked why someone of Justin Layne’s pedigree was still on the board so late in the third round.

Justin Layne’s measurable are solid. He stands just under 6’2” ran 4.5 in the 40, has a 37.5 vertical jump and has strong agility times running a 4.09 shuttle and a 6.9 3-cone. He also has 33 inch arms. New Steelers defensive assistant Teryl Austin was asked of Layne had a flaw in his game and retorted, “I’m not sure what the flaw is.”

Here’s a look at Layne’s tape:

His ball skills are evident and Justin Layne appears to be a solid tackler. The question of how and where Justin Layne will fit into the Steelers secondary will be an interesting one. When asked if he would play in the slot, which would make him an immediate threat to Mike Hilton, Teryl Austin countered by saying he saw Layne as more of an outside corner.

Joe Haden and Steven Nelson‘s status as the Steelers starting cornerbacks would not appear to be disrupted by Justin Layne’s arrival in Pittsburgh. However, it likely decreases any chance that the Steelers resign 2018’s starter Coty Sensabaugh.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Justin Layne.

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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix

The 2019 NFL Draft is just hours away and when it does the Pittsburgh Steelers will have already logged one of the most unusual off seasons in franchise history.

  • They’ve traded away their best player for near fire sale value
  • The national media has piled on the team and its franchise quarterback
  • Kevin Colbert has been uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency

The latter point is the one that is most relevant one to keep in mind. A year ago the Steelers responded to the playoff disaster against Jacksonville by making piecemeal moves in free agency, and defying the critics and going offense heavy in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

This year Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin moved swiftly to address the Steelers most glaring roster needs by signing cornerback Steven Nelson, inside linebacker Mark Barron and wide receiver Donte Moncrief.

  • While Kevin Colbert denies those moves will impact the Steelers draft decisions, don’t believe him.

Whether the freshly signed free agents turn out to be the next Ladarius Greens and Mike Mitchells or the next James Farriors and Ryan Clarks isn’t relevant tonight. What is relevant is that the Steelers have inoculated themselves against having to reach to fill need in with one of their premium picks.

And just what are the Steelers needs heading into the 2019 NFL Draft?

Steelers 2019 NFL Draft Needs

Over the last month, with a whale of an effort from staff writer Tony Defeo, Steel Curtain Rising has broken down the Steelers need on a position by position basis. Now that all is said and done, the Steelers areas of need break down into 3 tiers.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

At the top you have cornerback and inside linebacker identified as areas of High-Moderate need, followed by wide receiver and running back which clock in at Moderate-High.

In the middle tier, you have tight end, defensive line, outside linebacker and safety which are of Moderate need.

In the bottom tier you have offensive line which is of Low-Moderate need and quarterback which is of Low need.

There’s a lot of clustering there, so how do we break the ties? For that you have our annual Steelers 2019 Draft Need Matrix.

Steelers 2019 Draft Need Matrix

The premise of the Steelers draft needs matrix is simple – it is a guide to who the Steelers should pick in the event their on the clock and have two or more players with the same grade on them. Here is the Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix:

Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix, Steelers 2019 Draft Needs

Inside linebacker beats cornerback by a hair. Both are positions where the Steelers could and should draft to meet immediate future need. Inside linebacker wins out because the Steelers have more bodies at cornerback i.e. Cam Sutton, Brian Allen and dare we hope Artie Burns who could still contribute.

  • Whereas Jon Bostic is the only legitimate player behind Vince Williams and Mark Barron.

Running back will surprise many. And so it should. James Washington is the X factor in the quest to replace Antonio Brown. If he pans out as reporters and coaches assure use he will, the Steelers will be OK. If not, the Steelers will fall hard this autumn.

However, as is the case with inside linebacker and cornerback, the Steelers have more bodies at wide receiver than they do at running back. We’ve written time and time again how a dearth of running back depth as derailed the Steelers in December. Adding a third running back to play along side James Conner and Jaylen Samuels could go a long way to rectifying that chronic problem.

Wide receiver beats safety because of the above mentioned X factor and the simple reality that Ben Roethlisberger no longer has a Hall of Fame talent to target. Safety trumps outside linebacker because Anthony Chickillo has shown he can contribute at a far greater level than Marcus Allen or Jordan Dangerfield.

  • Outside linebacker beats out tight end because the Steelers might need to replace Bud Dupree before Vance McDonald sniffs free agency.

Tight end beating out defensive line is a no brainer. The Steelers could use more depth at defensive line, but they’re OK there. But defensive line depth clearly outshines the need to use a mid or even late round pick on a quarterback for a third straight year.

The NFL Draft – The Day Dreams Come True

Who will the Steelers pick in the first round? Will Devin Bush fall to him, or will Kevin Colbert engineer his first day one draft trade since picking Troy Polamalu in 2003? Or might they look to corernback, and draft Rock Ya-Sin, Bryon Murphy, or Greedy Williams? Or perhaps they’ll tap a safety again, such as Justin Thronhill or Darnell Savage?

  • Maybe they’ll surprise everyone and grab a tight end or a wide receiver?
  • I don’t pretend to know who that person will be any more than I’ll pretend to pontificate on who that person should be.

But every boy who ever wrapped his hands around a Nerf football and yapped out a bogus snap count has dreamed of playing in the NFL. And for a few hundred young men, that dream is about to become true. Let’s give those young men their day and wish the good luck and God speed in the NFL.

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Steelers Sign Steve Nelson to 3 Year Contract. First Big Free Agent Move @ Corner in 20 Years

Could a cycle be forming? In Pittsburgh’s 2019 home opening loss, the Kansas City Chiefs used and abused the Steelers secondary revealing it as a major weakness that needed to be corrected. To be sure, Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds stepped up their play from that awful day to begin making improvements during the season.

  • And now, as a first off season step towards shoring up that secondary the Pittsburgh Steelers have signed cornerback Steve Nelson from the Chiefs.

If reports are correct, Steve Nelson’s contract is for 3 years and $25.5 million, although there is no information on guarantees and signing bonuses at this point. Nelson cannot “officially” sign with Steelers at until 4:00 pm today.

Steve Nelson, Steve Nelson Steelers, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Chiefs

Steve Nelson attempts to tackle Antonio Brown in the Steelers 2016 playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Twitter

Given the money the Steelers are paying him, Steve Nelson will undoubtedly be slotted as the starter opposite Joe Haden. The move also ensures that the Steelers will not pick up the 5th year option on Artie Burns, although exercising that option would have been insane under any circumstances given Artie Burns track record.

Coty Sensabaugh, the incumbent starter, is a free agent who will not get a ton of money thrown at him, but is also not the type of player you can bring back at the veteran minimum. That in turn could be good news for Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen. Mike Hilton looks set to arrive at St. Vincents as the Steelers starting slot corner, but Burns, Sutton or Allen could conceivably mount a challenge.

Steelers First Big Free Agent Move at Cornerback in 20 Years

Cornerback has been a sore spot for the Steelers defense since at least Super Bowl XLV if not before. Despite that, the Steelers Steve Nelson signing is the first time the franchise has made a big-name free agent signing at cornerback since bringing Dwayne Washington to Pittsburgh in 1998.

By any measure, Steve Nelson is a counts as a major free agent signing by the Steelers. In 2018, he totaled 68 tackles, defensed 15 passes and made four interceptions. That 4 interception total tops the season high-total for any Steelers player since Troy Polamalu recorded 7 interceptions in 2010.

  • However, those were the first interceptions of Steve Nelson’s career.

That shouldn’t be necessarily be considered as an ominous sign – as Nelson had 16 passed defensed in 2016 and many scouts will tell you the passes defensed is a better performance metric for judging defensive backs.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Steve Nelson.

Steelers Free Agent News Coming Fast and Furious

While players cannot officially sign until 4:00 pm, a lot has already happened. Jesse James is headed to Detroit and Le’Veon Bell is flying off to the New York Jets. However, Anthony Chickillo will be returning to Pittsburgh.

Stay tuned. Steel Curtain Rising will have more in depth commentary on the moves above.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Coty Sensabaugh Has Quietly Brought Competence to Steelers Secondary. He Should Stay in Pittsburgh

Cornerback is one of the most demanding, thankless positions in football. The NFL with its fantasy football fueled love affair with inflating passing stats, makes it harder and harder for cornerbacks to their job.

Finding quality cornerbacks is tough for every NFL team, and a challenge has bedeviled Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers since Super Bowl XLV.

Could the Steelers find part of their answer at cornerback by looking in house? As Coty Sensabaugh reaches free agency that question means much more to him than anyone else on the South Side.

Coty Sensabaugh, Michael Crabetree, Steelers vs Ravens

Coty Sensabaugh breaks up a pass intended for Michael Crabtree. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Coty Sensabaugh Steelers Career

My what a difference a year makes.

On the eve of Coty Sensabaugh’s first start for the Steelers against the Tennessee Titans in 2017, staff writer Tony Defeo penned a feature extoling Coty Sensabaugh as potentially the latest Kevin Colbert bargain basement steal.

It was a great story line, except for the fact that with Joe Haden out of the line up, the Steelers started giving up a 57 yard pass ever half. And while all of this certainly wasn’t on Coty Sensabaugh, a big part of it was so much that Steelers coaches basically activated Cam Sutton off of the PAP list and started rotating him with Sensabaugh.

Fast forward to 2018. All summer we hear how working day-to-day with Antonio Brown has finally readied Artie Burns. Cam Sutton and Brian Allen are coming along. Many thought that Coty Sensabaugh would be the odd man out.

Yet Artie Burns struggled mightily, causing coaches to rotate Coty Sensabaugh with Burns, and then ultimately bench Burns in favor of Sensabaugh. After that, you didn’t hear much about Coty Sensabaugh, and often times that’s the highest complement you can pay a cornerback.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Coty Sensabaugh

Which player had the 2nd most defensive snaps for the Steelers in 2018? You guessed it, Coty Sensabaugh.

Coty Sensabaugh isn’t “The Answer” for the Pittsburgh Steelers at cornerback. In 2017 one would have been hard-pressed to argue that Coty Sensabaugh anything but a liability for a Steelers defense in free fall.

  • While the Steelers defense still has long way to go, the unit did improve in 2018.

And Coty Sensabaugh was a part of that improvement. Yes, the Steelers need an injection of talent at cornerback, but they also need competence. Neither Artie Burns, Cam Sutton or Brian Allen has proven they can provide that. Coty Sensabaugh has.

The Steelers should keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Coty Sensabaugh

While the Steelers are very far from salary cap hell, they don’t have a lot of space to spare on mid-level talent. And the Steelers track record at drafting cornerbacks is abysmal.

If the Steelers are going to look to fill a need at cornerback via free agency, then doesn’t it make sense to do it on a someone who has legit playmaking ability, rather than someone who is “serviceable?”

The Steelers could do worse at corner than Coty Sensabaugh, but they need to invest their free agent dollars in players than make them better instead of just being “not worse.”

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Coty Sensabaugh

This is a hard call to make. Outside of the signing of Tyson Alualu it has been all quiet on the South Side front in terms of contract extensions. That might not mean anything, as recent history has shown the Steelers to be as likely to resign their own players after free agency begins as they are before.

  • Coty Sensabaugh offers the perfect example of why you can never let the perfect stand in the way of the good.

Or the serviceable. The Pittsburgh Steelers need an injection of talent at cornerback, far beyond what Coty Sensabaugh can give them on his best day. But Coty Sensabaugh gives them competence at a position where it is sorely needed, and the Steelers would be wise to sign him to a modest 2 year deal.

Will they do that? In 10 days or so we’ll know.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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